The Fortuna Union High School District is scheduled to resume in-person classes on Monday, but some teachers are demanding that the school board reconsider the reopening plan, saying it is unreasonable for teachers and unsafe for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The staff and the teachers here are unhappy and this is unacceptable,” President of the Fortuna Union High School Teacher’s Association Imna Thompson told the Outpost Monday. “FUHSTA’s position is that this plan is unacceptable.”
The decision to reopen for in-person classes was approved by the district’s board of trustees in a 3-2 vote last week, following a five-hour meeting on the matter. Many teachers and staff spoke against the plan to hold in-person classes and are now asking the community to join them in requesting the district move to 100 percent distance learning for the first six weeks and reconsider in-person classes at the end of September. FUHSTA also wants the board to delay the start date to August 24 to give the teachers and staff adequate time to prepare.
In response to the board’s decision, students also started an online petition that has gained over 1,000 signatures.
All three schools in the district — Academy of the Redwoods, East High School and Fortuna High School — have plans to implement new health and safety protocols to help prevent the spread of COVID. Modified class sizes and schedules vary across the three schools. Probably the most concerning to the teacher’s association is Fortuna High School’s reopening plan, Thompson said. Classes will hold an average of 25 students, with some classes possibly holding more, according to the plan posted on the school’s website.
If families do not feel comfortable with their children attending in-person classes, the plan does offer either independent study or a virtual learning option. But Thompson said that FUHSTA takes issue with the proposed virtual option— a laptop and camera would be in the classroom, allowing students to watch the teacher via Zoom — and says it would be difficult for the student to ask questions and difficult for the teacher to monitor the students.
“It’s not high-quality distance learning,” Thompson said, adding that the reopening plan also puts the teachers at risk, because they would have to attend class in-person.
But the district maintains that although reopening presents a potential risk of spreading the virus, as much in-person learning as possible is the best option for the students and families. Over the weekend, Superintendent Glen Senestraro posted a community letter on the district’s website regarding the board’s decision.
“The Board’s decision to start school in-person is attributed to the fact in-person learning is the best,” the letter states. “Precautions are in place to reduce the risk of infection and spreading using the guidelines from CDPH, CDC, Humboldt County Health, CDE, and HCOE. These plans and precautions are not perfect or without risk.”
Though Humboldt County is in midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases, the county is not currently on the the state’s watch list and County Public Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich seems to largely support schools holding in-person classes if possible.
“From a public health standpoint, I think we in addition to the school recognize the intrinsic value of children being in school to learn,” Frankovich said when asked about the FUHSD board’s decision in her latest media availability.
Frankovich added that with no way to completely prevent the spread of the virus, schools need to weigh the benefits of holding in-person person classes against the health risks. “As a pediatrician, I think kids should be in school,” she said.
With the backing of state and local health recommendations, FUHSD Board President Charles Ellebrecht stands firmly behind his vote to reopen the school campuses on Monday and said that the board has no plans to rescind that decision, despite the outcry from the teacher’s association.
“I understand and I respect that they’re upset about it,” Ellebrecht told the Outpost in a phone interview Tuesday. “But there are numerous parents who feel the opposite of the teacher’s union.”
When asked what the FUHSTA plans to do if the board does not change the reopening plans, Thompson said that they are still working on this and not ready to share that information yet. But Thompson still holds out hope that the board will listen to their demands and urges those against the reopening plan to call and write to the board members, demanding they hold an emergency meeting to reconsider the plan.
“This is their opportunity to listen to the community, to listen to the teachers to listen to the students and the surrounding communities who are looking at Fortuna and wondering why we’re not doing 100-percent distance learning,” Thompson told the Outpost.